It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Artistic license reviewed


I review books – for Interzone, for Vector, for SFF Chronicles (though not as often as I should), for SF Mistressworks, for Daughters of Prometheus, even here on my blog. I have been reviewing books since the late 1980s.(My first published review was of CJ Cherryh’s The Tree of Swords and Jewels in the BSFA’s review magazine, Paperback Inferno, in October 1988. I vaguely recall not liking the book.) I am not a critic, nor do I consider my writings about books to be criticism. I leave that kind of in-depth analysis to those who have the necessary tools to do it.

I have also been on the receiving end of reviews – more so this past year than in any other. In two capacities: as the writer of the text being reviewed, and as the editor of the book under review. On the whole, it’s been very informative. I knew when I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains that it was atypical and possibly difficult. I suspected its appeal was limited. Happily, it seems to have transcended that and the vast bulk of reviews have been positive and very complimentary. Many of them have also been quite insightful, pulling out things I’d hadn’t realised I’d consciously put in the story. But that’s what happens with good reviewers.

Which is not to say that good reviewers can sometimes get it wrong. Martin McGrath felt Dan Hartland’s review of his story in Rocket Science on Strange Horizons missed an important point, and so he responded to it in a blog post. Dan’s review is, in the main, a good, insightful review. I think it’s clear he and I differ on what science fiction is and needs to be – for one thing, I don’t feel Rocket Science is “weirdly old-fashioned”. If anything, the current fashion for hand-wavey sentimental sf harkens back to an older form of the genre, although the current form is generally far better written. Dan also comments on diversity in his review, pointing out that only five of the twenty-two contributors to the anthology are female. Rocket Science was open submission, so there wasn’t much I could do about that. But it’s bending the point a little to present the contents as being wholly male-centric, especially when the review fails to mention, for example, Deborah Walker’s ‘Sea of Maternity’, a story about a single mother and her unruly teenage daughter. In point of fact, as this post shows, 23.53% of the stories featured female protagonists.

But that’s a minor quibble, and I think Dan’s review of Rocket Science is a good and useful review.

Which is more than can be said for this review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains

Yes, there is a typo on the first page of the book: “sussurus” should be “susurrus”. There’s nothing I can do about that in the paperback and hardback editions. I’ve not bothered fixing it in the ebook edition, but I will do when I publish the second book of the quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Typos happen, and while I should have caught that one, it did slip by a lot of other people as well.

I can understand someone having trouble with the prose style of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – no quotation marks! – and as a result not liking it. And so bailing before finishing it. I can comprehend a reader finding the subject not to their taste and so choosing not to read to the end. But, come on, giving up after a page because there are three (far from wildly obscure) words you don’t understand? That’s no excuse.

And to further suggest that it’s bad craft is insulting.

I do not believe in dumbing down my prose. I am not writing for people with limited vocabularies. I am writing for intelligent adults, because that’s what I consider my peers to be. I will not insult the intelligence of my readers because, as a reader, I loathe writers (or film-makers) who insult my intelligence. I may not always be successful in communicating precisely what I intended to communicate, but recasting it in words of one syllable is not a solution. I like writing “difficult” fiction, just as much as I enjoy reading “difficult” fiction. That difficulty, to my mind, adds value. It’s not just some slick superficial entertainment, but also something that makes you think, makes you reconsider your views and knowledge. Science fiction is particularly well-suited to that task – though the bulk of it fails to do more that bolster existing prejudices. I write about things that interest me and try to shine a new light on them. I don’t do “idea”. In fact, I’m becomingly increasingly convinced that the focus on idea is what continues to cripple science fiction. As long as you privilege idea, your fiction will not be taken seriously outside genre circles. And success within the genre is a poisoned chalice…

Science fiction is a small field, struggling to survive within the shadow cast by its history. There is also a very large elephant in the room of science fiction. (And I’m mixing metaphors, but never mind.) Past masters continue to provide topics within the genre conversation, despite no longer being relevant, of generally poor quality, and less available than in the past. Media sf is so popular the entire genre is believed to be the same as it – but science fiction is far from homogeneous. The sf works which receive general acclaim these days are ones that are not published as sf. Far from breaking down the walls of the ghetto, the tools of sf have leaked out but most of the readers and writers have refused to leave. This is not a healthy state of affairs.

There have been attempts in the past to re-engineer science fiction. While each ultimately failed, they did shift the genre in its course a little. Myself, I’d like to see science fiction stripped back to its roots and rebuilt for the twenty-first century, but that’s never going to happen. People are too happy with their tropes, no matter how old they are or how little sense they make in the current day.

I wrote the first two books of the Apollo Quartet as science fiction, and I set up Whippleshield Books as a science fiction small press. I consider myself a writer who writes in a sf mode. I use science fiction in my writing, I don’t actually write science fiction.

Perhaps the difference exists only in my head, but it’s enough for me.

EDIT: the review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains was also posted on with the heading “Artistic licence revoked!”. Hence, er, the title of this post… But I see now that’s he’s changed it… And reduced it to one-star. Yay, my first one-star review!

EDIT 2: “JL Dobias” has removed the “review” of Adrift on the Sea of Rains from his blog, so the link now points at some random blog post on “Gee Wiz” and “Wiz Bang” sf. The review on Amazon has also been removed, and the Goodreads review has been rewritten and now gives the book three stars rather than the original one. Dobias has thoroughly covered his tracks, so now only his comments here on my blog – all of which were from an email address belonging to a “Luci” – are all that remain of the whole farce. Given my dealings with Jerry/Luci, I suggest they’re best avoided.

22 thoughts on “Artistic license reviewed

  1. To which I say….YES.

    “Difficult” writers demand more of readers and some aren’t willing to pay the price. So be it. But at least have the intellectual honesty to admit that a book defeated you because it was smart, literate, stylistically innovative, etc. In other words, the reader/reviewer failed the book, NOT the other way around.

    You’re not a hack, a crowd-pleaser, your work has the ability to transcend genre and explore new ground. It possesses true originality…and, therefore, it will draw fire and snippy, facile reviews.

    “In fact, I’m becomingly increasingly convinced that the focus on idea is what continues to cripple science fiction. As long as you privilege idea, your fiction will not be taken seriously outside genre circles. And success within the genre is a poisoned chalice…”

    Statements like that convinced me to subscribe to your blog in the first place. Keep ’em coming. It’s time SF grew up, joined the real world and moved out of its parents’ basement. You’re part of the answer.

    Keep puttin’ pen to paper…

  2. Heh. That’s what I say. Heh.

    I am Swedish. I was thirteen before I managed to read a whole book in English. (The Spy Who Died of Boredom by George Mikes.) In other words am not a native speaker or reader of English.

    I know what amnotic, susurrus and palimpsest mean. What kind of books does that reviewer normally read? Enid Blyton?

  3. I have to hold my hands up for the typo; I should have caught that. My apologies. I wonder if the second reviewer is someone I’ve offended elsewhere. Perhaps the lack of commas in the review is an attempt to disguise his or her usual style.

  4. “People are too happy with their tropes, no matter how old they are or how little sense they make in the current day.”

    Interesting comment. And one that I actually find myself disagreeing with. I’ve detected a recent shift in emphasis of what publishers want from science fiction.

    One small contributory reason is the big publishers wanting to do e-publishing (viz HarperVoyager open call for unagented authors and the instantiation of the Hydra imprint at Random House).

    … I’m still trying to figure the rest of the picture…

  5. Hi Ian and Jim,

    Sorry if I offended. I never meant to have anyone dumb down their work. I took those words and tried to fit them in the context of your sentence and they were a poor match as far as I could see.

    And no Jim I’ve never had the pleasure of working with you or even intersecting with you.

    I love the idea of deflecting the real issue by pointing out punctuation though, that makes perfect sense. Almost as much as my questioning the uses of certain words.

    I know that I will never come up to your level of acumen, so I won’t try to match wits.

    I don’t know the etiquette here because I’ve never had the pleasure of having an author object to my critique. I think that you read it all wrong, because it was meant to be constructive. Sorry if my words and punctuation confused you.

    Thanks for increasing my internet traffic.


    PS. It would be awfully sporting of you if you could send me the definitions that you used for those three words. Perhaps my antiquated 2500 page dictionary needs to be replaced.

    • As a general rule, writers should not respond to reviews – but your blog post doesn’t really qualify as a review. You accused me of being a bad writer after reading a single page of my book and finding three words you didn’t understand. The words make perfect sense as used, so calling for simpler alternatives is asking me to dumb down my fiction.

      Having said that, if you bailed because of those three words, I suspect you’d have had real trouble later in the story, particularly when the astronauts begin discussing their available means to reach lunar orbit…

      • That’s interesting.

        Sorry that you saw it that way.

        It was a review or it was a critique and perhaps it demonstrated more that I wasn’t the reader for your literary offspring.

        As for scientific explanations- if that’s what you are alluding to in the ellipse of your final message then you are sorely mistake as I am extremely comfortable with the words generally associated with space exploration.

        I’ve enjoyed science fiction and fantasy for over 50 years now. I have been comfortable with authors ranging from Poe and Wells to Moon, Drake, and Clark. The list goes on.

        I have a fair grasp of English -That is provided that you are using those terms where they fit and not trying to create fancy new metaphors for personal enjoyment.

        I fully understand the words in question and still had a jarring time fitting them into a context they seemed to be forced into.

        Maybe you do sit down and speak that way amongst your friends and that’s fine.

        Sorry if it disturbed you so much because I couldn’t drive myself past that.

        Lastly if you didn’t want it reviewed.

        Why did you publish it?

        J.L. Dobias

        • Now you’re starting to piss me off. From your Amazon review:

          Removed at the authors request
          No, I did not ask you to remove or even change your review. I merely pointed out that I had problems with it.

          The author owns his own publishing company and publishes his own
          I have made no secret of this. I note that you also self-publish your own fiction on Kindle. Which makes you… a hypocrite.

          the author has specific criteria for what constitutes a real review
          As do most people. These include: reading the whole book and not giving up on the first page because you came across three words you didn’t know.

          I was mildly amused at your review – as it originally appeared – but you’ve behaved very badly in response to my comments on it. I don’t know what point you think you’re making, but the only person coming out of this whole affair looking like an arsehole is yourself.

          • You should check again.
            I read the entire novella and gave you a proper review based on the entire novella this time.
            J.L. Dobias

          • PS
            Never said there was anything wrong with self publishing just wanted to be sure you remembered that.

            And it was not you who propelled me to alter the review it was your ardent fan whom you sent to my website.

            I agree it was less than fair to write a review from a small sampling of pages so I read it all.

            • Never said there was anything wrong with self publishing just wanted to be sure you remembered that.

              I have written here on my blog numerous times about self-publishing, so I’m not likely to forget it.

              And it was not you who propelled me to alter the review it was your ardent fan whom you sent to my website.

              I sent no one to your website. I can’t control how other people react. You might consider that it was your review which prompted that response. My only reply is in this blog post (and its comment thread).

              I’d thank you for your review, but the complaint that I forced you to read the “entire novella” in order to give it a fairer review is inaccurate and spiteful.

              • Ah well I’d love to fix that but presently I haven’t even been able to correct all the spelling errors at amazon. It may be locked as it is for a while.

                Alas following this conversation I can see it doesn’t matter because there is nothing that I would do that won’t be twisted to your advantage.

                I have saved all the posts as they were emailed to me from your friend Liam- who did state he was your friend and demonstrates his rather abusive language which is uncalled for.

                I don’t object to other opinions but I am quite sensitive to internet bullying and I don’t post specific expletives, you should ask Liam for copies of his correspondences.

                And I do take some umbrage at being told I’m ignorant even if he tries to couch it in a rather bizarre highbrow vocabulary and even if he may somehow believe that it’s true.

                J.L. Dobias

                And,Yes, I do believe that when you leave the message you left and a link to my site you are responsible to tell your fans to behave themselves since you are violating the etiquette of critique by critiquing a critique to begin with. This is the same as if you are coming to my site and filling comments by using sock puppets to accomplish the deed.

                I think I’d rather be considered rough around the edges than to be grouped with the smug condescending people that seem to bounce from your site to mine.

                • The internet works because of hyperlinks. There’s nothing remarkable in my posting a link to your original review. In fact, if you look here, you will see links to lots of reviews of my novella.

                  I’m not responsible for Liam’s actions – and he’d be the first one to tell you that. I suspect he was not so much defending my novella as he was attacking an egregious review. In other words, he’d have done the same, no matter whose book had been reviewed as you reviewed mine.

                  In fact, I only found your review because it was a review of my book. Had it been any other book, I likely would never have stumbled across it. But my response would have been the same. Reading one page and then giving up because you couldn’t understand how three words were used does not constitute a review or a critique. To then further use that as “evidence” of bad craft is even worse.

                  Your subsequent edits and revisions of your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads come across more like revenge posts than any attempt at “fairness”. You didn’t like my book, fair enough. I wouldn’t expect everyone to. But to claim I’m a cyber bully when my only responses to you have been here on my blog is offensive.

                • I should also note that it’s considered poor form in a review to explain how you would have written the prose the author wrote.

  6. The OED? That’s the same dictionary I use.

    • Well now I didn’t say how i would write your prose.
      I explained why it didn’t work for me.
      You do seem quite obsessed about something now though and it makes me wonder what its

      I don’t believe my review would have been much different if I had forced myself to finish it. I

      n fact I thank Liam that he forced me to make that decision as it gave me the opportunity to see what really wasn’t working for me.

      There are still certain words I won’t allow on my blog and Liam was using those and his posts containing those were removed.

      My original review may have seemed egregious and I replaced that because of that. But, I should point out that there are many other I suppose egregious people who do not finish novels and still give reviews and none of those turn out well for the author because they wouldn’t have put it aside if they loved it.

      No matter how much you shame me whether I read the whole thing or not there is never a guarantee you will get another five star review. And complaining about the person being egregious and moronic and loquacious is not going to change how your prose affected them.

      I’m sorry that I didn’t say what you wanted me to say in the way you expected me to say it. It’s obvious that that’s never going to happen with this particular piece of writing and it grieves me almost as much as it does you.

      J.L. Dobias

      Okay once again please tell me what I just said because every time so far what you say and think I said and what I said don’t match.

      It’s getting rather entertaining.

      • Of course there’s no guarantee my next review on Amazon will be a five-star one. I never said it would be. I also never said that you weren’t entitled to your opinion. I did object to your claim that my use of words you did not understand was poor writing. That was only my only complaint (as you can see in the blog post above). I then used that comment as a springboard into a discussion on “dumbing down” prose and writing within the genre.

        You then claimed I demanded you remove your negative review of my book. I did no such thing. You rewrote your review on Amazon to make some snarky comments implying I was a cyber bully. You added large text in bold at the top of a post on your blog saying the same thing.

        You are entitled to your opinion. I am entitled to mine. No one said you had to like my book. But I do not like being falsely accused of cyber bullying.

        • Believe what you must believe.

          • There seems to be something wrong with your memory. Your comments above document your accusation of cyber bullying, that you have altered your reviews, and your Amazon review still reads “This link sent his fans to my sited [sic], some of them began to brow beat me for having not finished the book”. One person commented on your blog, and it was not about finishing the book. I see you have now removed that comment, the better to bolster your lies.

          • Also, I’ve had enough of this. Any further comments you leave will be deleted. The ones previously posted will remain as is. I consider it extremely dishonest to repeatedly edit and selectively delete blog posts and comments, as you seem to have done on your blog, on Amazon, and on Goodreads.

  7. [comment deleted as promised]

    • Good job, too.

      I attracted my first lunatic stalker on the internet many years ago – one “THOMAS M DRASHEK M.D.” (very fond of block caps) who followed me from the Inquirer to various other sites, posting screeds of deranged drivel, and then started emailing me personally to ask me to promote his psychotic ravings – and when I did not reply, having already suggested that he urgently seek psychiatric help, then I got added to his shit-list along with the CIA, the FBI and who knows who else who was *personally* persecuting him.

      Welcome to the club, Ian. :¬(

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